When it comes to long-form narrative television, the only weapon left in the showrunner’s hands is timing. In the Reddit-soaked era in which we live, just about anything that can be predicted will be predicted. Look at a show like Westworld, or the sixth season of Dexter, or any other program in which attempts to pull a surprise on the audience got absolutely pwned by the power of crowdsourcing.
Now, should this be an inherently bad thing? Hardly. There’s plenty of pleasure to be had in seeing your suspicions play out, especially if they are enacted by characters in whom you deeply invest. Not everything has to be a twist, and not everything need be obscured for the sake of shock value. But more often than not, viewers talk about twists because it’s more fun to think about what might be than what currently is. That doesn’t mean the show is doing a good job of laying down tracks for the ultimate reveal so much as not executing the fundamentals in the moment. If you’re thinking about the future, you’re bored with the present.
All of this takes us to last week’s bombshell episode of Jane The Virgin, and its subsequent follow-up episode last night. The show told us outright in season one that Michael would most likely die during the course of the show’s run, and it certainly seemed like last season’s cliffhanger would fulfill that prophecy. Instead, he died on a random episode halfway through the season with little fanfare and almost no build-up. It was hidden in plain sight within the episode if you knew what you were looking for, but Jane intentionally obscured Michael’s medical issues until his death turned into a pivotal fulcrum for the show’s narrative engine.
The advantages of doing it this way seem counterintuitive in the moment, but clearer when viewed from a distance. Shows train us how to watch them, and lull us into a false sense of security about when things happen, which characters are safe, and which rules of the show’s fictional universe are insoluble. These are good parameters to establish, and dangerous to upend. But if you introduce chaos in a way that deepens rather than destroys those basic tentpoles, a show can maintain familiarity without sacrificing innovation.
None of this is to say that it’s great that Michael isn’t on the show and that Brett Dier is currently out of a job. Far from it. I don’t want to turn this into a Team Michael vs. Team Raphael thing here, but I liked Jane and Michael together, and found their recent arguments so specific that I wondered if the Jane writers’ room had been putting bugs in my smart TV. They were a perfectly imperfect couple, right for each other even if they often did the wrong things to each other. Their domestic life both shattered and enriched the ideal of love that Jane inherited from her telenovelas: It was full of dirty diapers, missed signals, and unspoken fears as much as genuine affection and unwavering support.
Could the show have gone on with Michael in the picture? That’s not really a question one should ask, because that’s not the show Jennie Synder Urman wants to tell. Jane The Virgin is a show about storytelling, and how people fashion their lives into narratives in order to make sense of senselessness. It’s easier to think in terms like “protagonist,” “antagonist,” and “plot twist” when viewing one’s daily life because it gives shape to what’s really trillions of atoms bouncing off each other while affixed to a dying rock spinning in space in one of a trillion universes. What Michael’s death represents for Jane, as well as within the metanarrative of Jane, is that happy endings aren’t guaranteed, that people die all the time instead of in the planned final chapters, and the damn story just keeps going anyway, whether or not you would like it to do so.
The three-year time jump not only gives the show almost infinite flexibility in how to position its characters in this new timeline, but also a chance to not have to spend every waking moment dramatizing Jane’s achingly slow progress towards near-normalcy. Zen Raphael, Super Mommy Petra, and Reality Star Rogelio are all fun spins on existing characters, but the almost benign way in which Jane’s life has unspooled is the truly fascinating thing here. I would have bet an extremely large sum of money that the flash forward would yield a second child (due to her last time having sex with Michael before his LSATs), but unless the show is planning some future plot twist in which Lil’ Michael is living with Sin Rostro in a spaceship, I guess that’s not what happened.
Instead, she made a plan, and she stuck to the plan, even when the plan didn’t work. There’s something beautiful about Jane’s continued insistence that there’s order in the world, even when life seems to throw her curveball after curveball. She can’t control the world any more than she can contain Mateo’s mood swings, but there’s grace in her attempts to make everyone around her as safe and content as possible. She can be overly anal-retentive, but so much of her organization comes from her lack of margin for error. She doesn’t have the money or connections to repeatedly fail and still come out ahead. But she does have the intellect and tenacity to create moments of opportunity, which is why her book being accepted for publication isn’t a cheap win but rather the culmination of every calendar she’s ever organized since the pilot episode.
All of this could have unfolded exactly as it did had last week’s episode been the season three finale and last night’s been the season four premiere. Hell, maybe The CW would have preferred to have a summer’s worth of articles breathlessly promoting the changes that may or may not unfold. But life doesn’t fit nicely into episodes, season orders, or sweeps periods. Things usually happen much later than we’d like, if at all. But others happen so suddenly that you can’t believe you didn’t get a chance to do more when you could. New parts in our lives don’t pre-announce their arrivals, and new parts in Jane The Virgin don’t either. Michael’s death didn’t end Jane’s life, even if she felt like it had. There were too many people counting on her, but luckily, there were lots of people on whom she could count.
It’s a beautiful sentiment, and one that I look forward to the show exploring in the rest of this season and beyond. Jane The Virgin is so relentlessly smart about what’s important about our time on this planet that not even death could snuff out this show’s inherently optimistic view of life.